The video below is from a recent series of KFC commercials featuring the iconic Colonel Sanders as Colonel RoboCop. The commercial humorously demonstrates how a countdown or deadline can motivate people. As a writer, I frequently face deadlines and I know they certainly spur me get things done! With April 15th looming, most in the U.S. are increasingly motivated (if that’s the right word in this instance) to get their taxes finished.
However, all of these are earthly deadlines. Sadly, one of the most fundamental deadlines facing all of us is among the most ignored. It is a deadline in the most literal sense of the word: each of us will die one day. With few exceptions, the exact moment and manner of our death is unknown to us and outside our control.
What are we doing to get ready to meet God? Because we don’t know when we will die, it is easy to push it to the back of our mind—but it is an ever-present deadline, a possibility at every moment. Like a person with a life-threatening allergy who must always keep an emergency injection pen with him, each of us needs to stay in God’s grace at all times, for we know neither the day nor the hour (Mat 25:13).
In the commercial, the family is engrossed in a movie (featuring RoboCop, naturally). They ignore the intrusion by Colonel RoboCop until he begins counting down to zero. Don’t let this be a picture of your life with God, because you won’t get a countdown. Repent while it is still today; tomorrow is not promised.
In the Gospel reading from Thursday, the Lord teaches the need to persist in prayer.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matt 7:7-8).
Seeking and knocking indicate persistence. While we might look for something briefly and then give up if we don’t find it, seeking implies an ongoing, perhaps lengthy search. Similarly, we don’t usually knock by softly tapping a door just once and then leaving if there’s no answer; we rap sharply a few times, and if no one comes forth we’ll usually try a few more times.
So, the Lord uses images of repetition for prayer. Indeed, the very word “repetition” comes from Latin roots denoting vigorous, repeated asking (re (again) + petere (to ask, beseech, or even to attack, go at, or strive for)).
Repetition, by its nature, is often vigorous and even pestering. Jesus teaches this concept in the parable about the persistent widow:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray at all times and not lose heart: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected men. And there was a widow in that town who kept appealing to him, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God or respect men, yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice. Then she will stop wearing me out with her perpetual requests.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to the words of the unjust judge. Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He continue to defer their help? I tell you, He will promptly carry out justice on their behalf. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
This is a funny parable! In effect, though, Jesus says that we should pray and not lose heart, that we should call out to God day and night. He is teaching us to pray in such a way that we wear the Father out!
Here’s another passage in which Jesus teaches persistence:
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you goes to his friend at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine has come to me on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And the one inside answers, ‘Do not bother me. My door is already shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up to provide for him because of his friendship, yet because of the man’s persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs (Luke 11:5-8).
There are other examples, such as the Syrophoenician woman who kept asking Jesus to heal her daughter despite being ignored and even rebuked (Matt 15:20-24), and the blind man at Jericho who kept crying out to Jesus despite being told by the crowd to be quiet (Luke 18:39).
Ponder well this teaching and learn to persist in prayer. Pray to God in such a way as to wear Him out. Yes, pester God a bit. The Lord himself teaches us this. God is neither deaf nor grouchy, but for reasons of His own He wants us to be persistent in our prayers. There may come a time when we are able to discern that His answer to our request is no, but until that is clear, keep knocking, keep seeking; rinse and repeat. Wear God out!
In the Gospel for today’s Mass (Thursday of the First Week of Lent) Jesus says,
If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Lk 11:13)
I received an e-mail once, regarding this verse:
“This line bugs me. I think I know the larger point that Jesus makes here, and/or perhaps it’s poorly translated, but it seems a bit harsh for Jesus to refer to mankind as ‘wicked’. Wicked? That’s tough stuff! But perhaps, to Jesus, we are evil.”
So what is going on here? Why does Jesus call us wicked?
First let’s make sure that the translation from the Greek is a good one. The Greek expression used is πονηροὶ ὑπάρχοντες (poneroi hyparchontes). Poneroi is defined “bad, of a bad nature or condition,” but it is also defined as “full of labors, annoyances, hardships.” Hyparchontes is defined as “from the very beginning” or “being inherently.”
Thus, the translation “you who are wicked” is likely accurate. However, there is a sort of sympathy contained in it as well, implying that this wickedness comes from the fact that we have inherited a fallen nature that is weighed down with the labors and hardships that come from living in this fallen world, this “paradise lost.”
What do the commentaries say? It is interesting that in the seven modern commentaries I consulted, not one of them mentions this expression. However, some of the ancient Fathers did:
Cyril of Alexandria wrote, When he says, “You who are evil” he means, “You whose mind is capable of being influenced by evil and not uniformly inclined to good like the God of all” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 79).
In one of his homilies, Bede had this to say:Any human mortal, weak and still burdened with sinful flesh, does not refuse to give the good things which he possesses, although they are earthly and weak, to the children whom he loves (Homilies on the Gospel 2.14).
Elsewhere, Bede is quoted as follows:He calls the lovers of the world evil, who give those things which they judge good according to their sense, which are also good in their nature, and are useful to aid imperfect life. Hence he adds, “[They] know how to give good gifts to [their] children.” The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Lk 11:13).
Athanasius said,Now unless the Holy Spirit were of the substance of God, Who alone is good, He would by no means be called good, since our Lord [Jesus] refused to be called good, inasmuch as He was made man (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Luke 11:13).
What, then, can we draw from the fact that the Lord calls us “wicked”?
Jesus seems to be speaking by comparison or degree. He may not mean that we are evil in an absolute sense, rather that we are evil in comparison to God, who is absolute good. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages have fewer comparative words, so the ancient Jews would often use absolute categories to set forth comparison or degree. For example, elsewhere Jesus tells us that we must hate our father, mother, children, and even our very self and that we must love Him (e.g., Luke 14:26). This does not mean that we are to literally despise our family and others. It means that we are to love Jesus more than we love them. Because of the paucity of comparative words available, the ancient Jews used a lot of what we would consider to be hyperbole. In modern English we might say, “If you, then, who are not nearly as holy as God and are prone to sin, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, who is absolutely good and not prone to sin, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
However, we ought to be careful not to discount Jewish hyperbole and simply rewrite the words; the point of the hyperbole cannot be completely set aside. Created things may share in God’s goodness, but God alone is absolutely good. So good is He, in fact, that everything else is practically evil in comparison. The hyperbole places the emphasis of God’s absolute goodness. We have no goodness apart from God’s goodness. If we do share in God’s goodness, it is infinitesimal in comparison. Hence, as Bede said, The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone.
Even Jesus refused the title “good” for Himselfin terms of His humanity. The Gospel of Mark contains the following dialogue: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good except God alone (Mk 10:17-18). As God, Jesus is good—absolute good. One could also argue that in His sinless humanity, Jesus is also good; but Jesus, presuming the man merely regarded Him as ordinarily human, rebukes him and declares that God alone is good.
In the end, it’s time for us to eat some humble pie. Jesus probably does not mean we are absolutely evil and have nothing good in us, but God alone is absolutely good. He is so good that we can barely be thought of as anything but evil in the face of His immense goodness. Humble pie doesn’t have much sugar in it, does it!
In the Gospel for Wednesday (Wednesday of the First Week of Lent) the Lord says, This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah (Lk 11:30). What is the sign of Jonah? Does it apply today?
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke present two signs of Jonah, one of which particularly concerns us here.
First Sign: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invokes Jonah in a twofold way: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). In this image, Jonah’s descent into the belly of the whale is a sign of the Lord’s descent to Sheol. For the sake of brevity, I would like to set aside this first sign and go on to discuss the second sign of Jonah. (Matthew’s Gospel sets this second sign forth in essentially the same way as does the Lucan version.)
Second Sign: In the Lucan version, read at today’s Mass, the mention of the whale is omitted and only this second sign is declared: This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here (Luke 11:29-32).
But what exactly is this (second) sign of Jonah? On one level, the text seems to spell it out rather clearly. Jonah had gone to the Ninevites with this message: Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed (Jonah 3:3). In response, the Ninevites (led by their King) repented, fasted, and prayed. Seeing their actions, God relented and did not destroy them. So on one level the sign of Jonah is the message “Repent or die.” Just as the Ninevites heard Jonah’s warning, put faith in it, and were spared, so the people of Jesus’ time should put faith in His warning to repent and believe the Good News. If they do not, they will meet with great disaster.
What would cause this disaster? The description of the sign of Jonah taps into the historical context of Jonah’s ministry, but applied to the people of Jesus’ time it has a polemical tone. Let’s consider why.
When Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, he resisted. He must have thought that it was a no-win situation for him: either they would rebuff his prophecy (and likely kill him) or they would heed his message and grow stronger. (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the mortal enemy of Israel, and Jonah had no interest in seeing them strengthened.)
When Jonah made his announcement of imminent destruction, Assyria did repent, and in their strength they would become a rod in God’s hand to punish Israel. Isaiah the Prophet had well described Israel’s crimes and said that punishment would surely come upon her from Assyria. God would use Assyria to humble and punish His people, Israel. Here is a key passage in which Assyria is described in this way: … Assyria, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets (Isaiah 10:5-6).
Here, then, is a deeper meaning of the sign of Jonah: if Israel will not repent, then God will take their power and strength and give it to a foreign land that knows Him not. These foreigners will shame and humiliate Israel, inflicting God’s punishment on them.
This is humiliating to Israel on two levels. First, a pagan country would repent while God’s own people would not. Second, they are conquered by a foreign and unbelieving people. The destruction by Assyria was a devastating blow to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and resulted in the loss of the ten tribes living there. Only Judah and the Levites were left in the South as a remnant.
Let’s apply this understanding of the sign of Jonah, first to Jesus’ time and then to our own.
In Jesus’ time the sign of Jonah meant that if Israel would not repent and accept the Gospel, God would take it from them and give it to the Gentiles. Jesus says elsewhere to his fellow Jews, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit (Matt 21:43). Just as ancient Israel’s refusal to repent led to its destruction by the Assyrians, so Israel’s refusal to repent in Jesus’ time would mean destruction by the Romans (in 70 A.D.). This was prophesied by Jesus in the Mount Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36). According to Josephus, more than a million Jews were lost in this horrible war.
In our time, I suggest that the sign of Jonah may be active. I know that this may be controversial, but it seems to me that many Christians and Catholics in the decadent West have stopped loving life. Birth rates have dropped dramatically and are well below replacement level. We are on our way to aborting and contracepting ourselves right out of existence. God has loosed judgment on us in the form of the sign of Jonah. He seems to be saying this to us: “Fine, if you do not love life and are not zealous for the faith I have given you, then disaster is upon you. Others in this world still do appreciate larger families and are zealous for their faith. And even if they (like the Assyrians of old) are not Christian, I will use them to humble and punish you. They will grow and increase while you decrease. Perhaps when you are punished by a people who do not respect your religious liberty, you will repent and begin to love life.”
In the European Union today, the birth rate is about 1.6 children per woman. Globally, Muslim women average 2.9 children. Do the math and realize that Europe as we have known it is coming to an end. In the United States the birth rate is 1.8 children per woman. In general, the Catholic world in the West is in decline, both in terms of our birth rates and our zeal for the faith. We are surely being diminished by our culture of death and decadent sloth.
Is it the sign of Jonah upon us today in the decadent West? You decide.
There is perhaps no greater benefit to mental health than gratitude. Grateful people are different. They are more joyful, for gratitude is a form of joy. They are more generous, kind, patient, forgiving, confident, and trusting.
Gratitude is a discipline of the mind wherein we commit to counting our blessings every day and expressing thanks to God. Our blessings are countless and our burdens, though real, are far fewer and of a passing nature. Consider the following meditation from St. Gregory of Nazianzen:
What benefactor has enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship?
Who has given you dominion over animals, those that are tame and those that provide you with food? Who has made you lord and master of everything on earth? In short, who has endowed you with all that makes man superior to all other living creatures? (Oratio 14, De Pauperum amore, 23-25)
Indeed, it is God who gives all this and so much more, things seen and unseen, known and unknown.
Our flesh is wired for negativity and looks about warily for threats. But we are not debtors to the flesh to live according to its promptings (Romans 8:12). Thus, in obedience to our spirit, we must cultivate gratitude rooted in wonder and awe at what God has done and continues to do for us. If we do not, we easily become fearful and stingy; our mental and emotional health quickly deteriorates.
When was the last time you really counted your blessings? When was the last time you looked about in wonder and awe and just sighed, saying, “Thank you, Lord; you have done so much for me that I cannot tell it all”?
Among the struggles that many face in their spiritual lives is one in which we at times feel angry with God. While the sources of this anger can be varied, they tend to be focused in three areas: the existence of evil and injustice in the world (which God seems to permit), God’s seeming delay in answering our prayers, or some personal setback or trial in our life..
The knowledge that God can prevent bad thingsoften leads to the expectation that he should. And then when such expectations are not met, resentment, disappointment, or anger can follow.
Sometimes our anger at God is obvious to us. At other times, however, it can manifest itself more subtly: depression, spiritual sadness, avoidance of God and spiritual things, loss of hope, or a reduction in asking things of God in prayer. Sometimes, too, we like to minimize our anger by saying that we are merely “disappointed,” or “frustrated.”
But the reality is that at times we are angry with God, sometimes very angry. What to do about this anger?
God Himself seems to say over and over again in the Scriptures that He wants us to talk to Him about it, to tell Him that we are angry, and to pray out of this reality in our life.
God actually models this in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms is the great prayer book that God gave to Israel. In the Psalms is enshrined every sort of human experience and emotion: joy, exultation, hope, gratitude, dejection, hatred, despair, and anger—yes, even anger at God. God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, authors the very prayers of the Psalms. He tells us, in effect, that every human emotion is the stuff of prayer. He models for us how to pray out of our experiences, not only of joy and gratitude, but also of despair and anger. God says that whatever you’re going through should be the focus of your prayer.
Thus, God tells us that even if we are angry with Him, we should speak to Him about it. And He does not ask us to mince words, to minimize our emotions, or even to speak politely.
One of the most common expressions of anger toward God in the Scriptures appear in what might be called the “usquequo verses.” The Latin word usquequo is most literally translated “how long?” And thus, in the Psalms and in other verses of Scripture, will often come the question, “How long, O Lord?”
While the adverb usquequo can simply be part of a straightforward question such as “How long until lunch?” it is usually used in rhetorical fashion, such as when one asks “How long?” in a plaintive and exasperated tone, as in “How much longer?” It’s as if to say, “O Lord, why do you let this awful situation go on? Where are you?” Thus, the word bespeaks not only disappointment, but also a certain feeling of injustice that God would care so little about us that He would allow such terrible things to go on for so long.
God knows that we sometimes feel this way. And even if our intellect can supply some possible reasons that God would allow bad things to go on, or that He is not entirely to blame for the mess that we’re in, still it is clear that our feelings often are not satisfied with any rational explanation. And we simply cry out, “How long, O Lord?
God knows this about us. He knows that we are feeling like this and wants us to talk to Him directly about it, to articulate it, and to pray out of this experience.
Here are some representative passages from Scripture:
Psalm 13:1-2How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Psalm 6:3-6My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning.
Psalm 10:1-2Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
Psalm 35:17How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.
Psalm 44:24Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?
Psalm 89:46How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?
Psalm 79:5-7How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and devastated his homeland.
Psalm 74:10-11How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Psalm 94:2-3Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
Lam 5:20Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?
Habakkuk 1:1-4How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
Job 7:18-19Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.
Thus we see modeled for us that God wants us to say what we are feeling, to give voice to our anger. Why is this? First of all, He already knows that we are angry. He doesn’t want our prayer to be suppressed, pretentious, or phony. If anger is the “elephant in the living room,” let’s admit it rather than trying to pretend it’s not there. Second, expressing our emotions aloud often helps to vent them or at least to reduce their power over us. Suppressed feelings often become depression if they are not given respect and a voice.
The biblical texts also model a kind of Jewish insight and practice known as “taking up a rib” (pronounced “reeb”) wherein one argues, complains, contends, strives, or pleads a case with God. Even early on in Scripture we see Abraham and Moses in (sometimes tense) negotiations with God (e.g., Genesis 18:16ff, Exodus 3, Numbers 14:10ff). And thus the psalms and similar texts model a kind of “rib” wherein one asks God to deliver on His promises and expresses exasperation at His apparent delay in doing so. God the Holy Spirit models and encourages this sort of prayer by including it in the inspired text.
Mysteriously, God does not often answer the “Why?” that is implicit in our groans. But He is most willing to hear them. And sometimes it is our very groans that yield the desired relief. Scripture says, I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry, my appeal. He turned his ear to me, and thus, I will call on him as long as I live (Ps 116:1-2). Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5). St. Augustine said, More things are wrought in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words (Ltr to Proba, 2).
Our groans and soulful protests do reach God’s ears.
At other times when we protest suffering or evil, God gives a Job-like answer (cfJob 38 ff), in which He reminds us of our inability to see the whole picture. His answer is a kind of “non-answer,” in which He reminds us that our minds are very small.
Nevertheless, the point is that God instructs us to ask, to protest, “How long?” This instruction is a sign of His understanding—even respect—for our anger and exasperation.
It is interesting to note that God oftentimes takes up the complaint “How long?” Himself! It ought not to surprise us that God is at times “exasperated” with us. In a kind of anthropomorphic turning of the tables, He sometimes laments, “How long?” Here are some of those texts:
Psalm 82:1God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?”
Jer 4:21-22How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet? My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.
Jer 23:26-28I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, “I had a dream! I had a dream!” How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name …
Matt 17:17Jesus replied, “Unbelieving and perverse generation, how long must I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
So it would seem that God is willing to admit into prayer both our anger and His. Where there is love there is also bound to be some anger, for when we love, things matter. God would rather have us speak openly and honestly of our anger toward Him. He also often reveals His anger toward us. Vituperative anger, name calling, and cursing are in no way commended, only honest airing of the fact of our anger and the basis for it.
There is an old saying, “No tension, no change.” The simple fact is that God allows some tension in our lives and in our relationship with Him. One reason for this is that tension helps to keep our attention and evokes change. In instructing us to cry out, “How long, O Lord?” He invites us to take up the energy and tension of our anger and make it the “stuff” of our prayer. In so doing, our prayer is more honest, and it soars on the wings of passion. It keeps us engaged and energized; it fuels a kind of insistence and perseverance in our prayer.
Within proper bounds, and with humility presumed, anger in prayer has a proper place. God Himself both prescribes it and models it for us in the Book of Psalms as well as in other texts. Be angry, but sin not (Eph 4:26).
The video below is a wonderful musical setting of Henri Desmarets’ (1661-1741) Usquequo Domine. It is rather long, so you might want to play it in the background.
The translation of Psalm 13 sung here is as follows:
How long O Lord will thou forget me, must thy look still be turned away from me? Each day brings a fresh load of care, fresh misery to my heart; must I be ever the sport of my enemies? Look upon me, O Lord my God, and listen to me; give light to these eyes, before they close in death; do not let my enemies claim the mastery, my persecutors triumph over my fall! I cast myself on thy mercy; soon may this heart boast of redress granted, sing in praise of the Lord, my benefactor.
There’s an old gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “gospel train.” The gospel train is not always an easy ride with perfect scenery, but you’ve gotta get your ticket and stay on board.
Mysteriously, the train sometimes passes through difficult terrain, but just stay on board! On His way to glory, Jesus faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sinning).
Today the gospel train pulls into “Temptation Station” and we are asked to consider some of life’s temptations. The three temptations faced by Jesus are surely on wide display in our own times. What are these temptations and how do we resist them?
In this desert scene, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, all of which have one thing in common: they seek to substitute a couch for the cross.
In a way, the devil has one argument: “Why the cross?” His question is a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and in your anger, to reject Him as some sort of despot.
Well, pay attention, Church! The cross comes from the fact that you and I, ratifying Adam and Eve’s choice, have rejected the tree of life in favor of the tree that brought death. We, along with the devil, may wish to wince at the cross and scornfully blame God for it, but in the end the cross was our choice.
If you think that you have never chosen the tree of death and that God is “unfair,” then prove to me that you have never sinned. Only if you can do that will I accept that you have never chosen the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. Only then will I accept that you have never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.
If you can’t, then you’ve made the same self-destructive, absurd choice that the rest of us have. It is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked and are to blame for the presence of the cross. The cross comes not from God but from us. We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering, and the cross, and instead look in the mirror. The glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus came into this twisted world of our making and endured its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world, it is our choice, not God’s.
Have we finished blaming God? Are we ready to focus on our own issues? If so then let’s look at some areas of temptation that the devil can exploit because we indulge them. Let’s also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations; for He, though tempted, never yielded.
Pleasures and Passions – The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After such a long fast, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect, the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge His desire, to give in to what His body craves.
We, too, have many desires and are told by the devil in many ways to “scratch where it itches.” Perhaps no generation before has faced such strong temptation. We live in a consumer culture that is highly skilled at eliciting and then satisfying our every desire. All day long, we are bombarded with advertisements that arouse desire and then advise us that we simply must fulfill those desires. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the way we want at the instant we want it, we are indignant. Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color? The advertiser’s basic message is that you can have it all. This is a lie, of course, but it is told so frequently that we feel entitled to just about everything.
Some of our biggest cultural problems are ones stemming from overindulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, and greed. We experience overstimulation that robs us of a reasonable attention span; boredom is a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of video games and action movies. We have done well in turning stones into bread.
Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, Man does not live on bread alone. In other words, there are things that are just more important than bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Lk 12:15). I have written further on this in another post: The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things.
Popularity and Power– Taking Jesus up a high mountain, the devil shows Him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to Him if Jesus will but bow down and worship him. This is a temptation to both power and popularity; the devil promises Jesus not only sovereignty but glory.
Because most of us are not likely to become sovereigns and because temptation is only strong in those matters that seem remotely possible for us, I will focus instead on popularity—something we deal with regularly in this life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, to be popular, to be respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned, or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way.
For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do almost anything to attain it. It usually starts in youth, when peer pressure “causes” young people to do many foolish things. They may join gangs, get tattoos, pierce their bodies, and/or wear outlandish clothes. Many a young lady, desperate to have a boyfriend (and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends), will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things in order to gain that “love.” As we get older, we might be tempted to bear false witness, to make “compromises” to advance our career, to lie to impress others, to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, and/or to try to impress people whom we don’t even like. Likewise, we may be tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right.
All of this is a way of bowing before the devil, because it demonstrates that we are willing to sin in order to fit in, to advance, or to be popular. Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.
The real solution to this terrible temptation of popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God, we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to expend effort trying to please anyone else. I have written more on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?.
Presumption and Pride – Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for Him by casting Himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not Scripture say that God will rescue Him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic.
Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love,” they boldly say. “He would never send people to Hell or punish them!” In saying this, they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise; they have refashioned God and worship a man-made idol. “God doesn’t care whether I go to Church,” they claim. “He doesn’t mind if I live with my girlfriend.” The list of things God “doesn’t mind” continues to grow.
The attitude seems to be that no matter what I do, God will save me. It is presumptuous to speak or think like this. Hell and punishment are surely difficult teachings to fully comprehend and to reconcile with God’s patience and mercy, but He teaches of them and therefore we need to stop pretending He doesn’t.
I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be.
A mitigated form of presumption is procrastination, wherein we constantly put our return to the Lord out of our mind. About this tendency it is said,
There were three demons summoned by Satan as to their plan to entrap as many human beings as possible. The first demon announced that he would tell them there is no God. But Satan wasn’t too impressed. “You’ll get a few, but not many and even those atheists are mostly lying and know deep down inside that someone greater than they made them and all things.” The second demon said he would tell them there is no devil. But Satan said, “That won’t work, most of them have already met me and know my power.” Finally, the third demon said, “I will not tell them there is no God or no devil, I will simply tell them there is no hurry!” And Satan smiled an ugly grin and said, “You’re the man!”
Jesus rebukes the devil by quoting Deuteronomy:You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption, for it is widespread today.
This does not mean that we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what He calls sin. We should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubting that we that really need it or just presuming that He doesn’t mind.
The train is leaving the station soon. I hope that we’ve all benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination, and hope.
The journey ahead is scenic but difficult and temptation is a reality, but as an old gospel song says, “The gospel train’s comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ and rollin’ thro’ the land. Get on board little children, get on board. There’s room for many more!”
The video below is an advertisement for the “depth control” feature in a smartphone camera. It enables the production of an image in which the essential part is emphasized by blurring the background.
We must learn to exhibit similar “depth control” in our own life. Indeed, much goes on in the background or far away. Life has many complexities; we need to decide where we should focus our attention, time, and energy. This is especially important in this age of non-stop communication and constant interruption. The 24/7 news features many stories about far away places or issues over which we have little control. We need to practice depth control by understanding what is ours and focusing on what we can personally do.
There may be a lot of foolishness in government or out in Hollywood, but I personally can’t do much about it. I can, however, work on my own life and speak the truth to people I know and love. I may not be able to fix politicians or celebrities, but I can work on fixing myself and helping those closest to me to do the same.
Simply shaking our heads and saying that the world is awful is not a solution. Depth control comes with knowing what part of the awful world has been assigned to me and my influence. We must focus there and leave the rest to God and those to whom he assigns pieces of it.